THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES: Lou Reed, Part 2 of Chapter 1: Conversations on Music Elevated to a State of Art
By Dan Ouellette
THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES is the work-in-progress book on Medium that continues for several weeks with archival articles on rock stars such as #Frank Zappa and jazz greats including #Wayne Shorter. The writing originally appeared in print magazines and newspapers that have been relegated to the landfill.
THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES:
CHAPTER 1. LOU REED
More ecstasy: Half court with Eddie Vedder
Three months after our first conversation, I’m back again, but Lou is running late. He’s stuck in midtown traffic after a midday shoot at CNN ran overtime. He’s phoned ahead for Dean & DeLuca coffee to be waiting for him when he arrives at his Sister Ray Enterprises office in SoHo. He’s been squeezing in a lot of appointments lately as he ramps up for the release of Ecstasy.
Today, Reed is visibly upbeat as he enters the high-ceilinged loft space, walks down the hardwood hallway past the framed concert posters and gold records from his Velvet Underground and solo act days, and greets his energetic rat terrier Lola who’s eager for a jaunt to the nearby dog run.
Wearing a black leather jacket and pants, Lou sits down at his desk, then quickly jumps up to go into the other room to retrieve a heavy glass ashtray. On the last visit, he was four days into quitting smoking and relying on a tin of eucalyptus-flavored jujubes to get him through the nicotine withdrawal. Today the dome-shaped candies are gone, replaced by a bowl of shelled walnuts. And the cigarettes?
“Failure,” Lou says simply, explaining that he was doing fine until he went to Germany in February with theater director Robert Wilson to debut their new Edgar Allen Poe-inspired collaborative project Poe-try. “That was the beginning of the end,” he says while munching on a walnut. He shakes his head. “Sad to say.”
A humorous, meandering conversation ensues, moving from declining eyesight (both of us admitting to cheating on a driver’s license eye test) to ankle problems (Lou breaking his ankle in the ’80s when a rotted mobile staircase at a concert broke underneath him) to a shared passion for playing basketball.
“I like to go half court, but we don’t play those rough elbow-swinging-to-the-nose kinds of street games,” he says, lighting up a cigarette. “Whenever Eddie Vedder’s in town, we go one-on-one. He’s got a murderous jump shot that he throws like a football. He’s really accurate.”
“Made in New York by New Yorkers”
When we finally settle into more Ecstasy talk, Lou says he’s pleased with the initial pre-release response. “Friends like it just fine and some people are particularly impressed by the sound of the recording. It’s like, ‘How did you do that?”’ He notes that even though he’s got the rep as a poet (case in point: his new book, Pass Thru Fire: The Collected Lyrics (Hyperion)), he also takes great pride in perfecting the sonic quality of his recordings.
While his patience wears thin with some scribes who insist on asking him to dissect the meaning of his songs, Reed laughs when talking about a conversation he recently had with a young writer from Eastern Europe. “This kid shows up and tells me he thinks the new album is OK, then pulls out a copy of the first Velvet Underground record. He tells me this is what he really likes and asks me to sign it.”
Lou shrugs. Even though Velvet Underground is ancient history, the band’s legacy lives on. He was a founding member of the seminal avant-rock group (formed in 1965 and befriended by avant-garde artist and filmmaker Andy Warhol), penning tunes that bluntly brought up such frowned-upon subjects as transvestitism, hard-core drug use and sexual experimentation. Lou is often hailed as the godfather of punk. Born and raised in the New York metropolitan area, Lou defied pop music conventions with the Velvets (a point of inspiration for the likes of Patti Smith and Johnny Rotten) and moved to solo fame, propelled by his 1972 David Bowie-produced album Transformer with its radio hit song, “Walk on the Wild Side” (censors at the time had no clue what the word “head” meant in the context of the story) and the achingly beautiful “Perfect Day.”
For Ecstasy, Lou enlisted Hal Willner to produce. “It was great having Hal in there with us,” Lou says while also crediting sound engineer Tim Latham. “I first worked with Hal on his Kurt Weill project several years ago. He’s responsible for making things sound right. Tim made it easy. All we musicians had to do was come into the studio and play.”
Joining Lou for the bulk of the sessions included his longtime bandmates: bassist Fernando Saunders, drummer Tony Smith and fellow guitarist Mike Rathke. “These guys are great,” Lou says. “We’ve been playing together so long as a band that we know how to work well together. I was incredibly lucky that everyone was available and in New York when we wanted to record.”
The tracking took seven weeks, with the entire recording process, including mixing and mastering, three months. Lou says there were issues with a few snags. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the leader and all the other principals — and even such guests as jazz trumpeter Steven Bernstein of Sex Mob fame who did the horn section arrangements on a couple of numbers — are from New York.
Lou laughs and says, “I was thinking of putting a little stamp on the back of the CD jacket that reads, ‘Made in New York by New Yorkers.’” He laughs again and says that Ecstasy is a true Gotham City album. “It’s coming from all of this…” — he extends his arms — “…where we all are. It’s the good, the bad and everything else in between.”
Rock elevated to a state of art
On Ecstasy, Lou delivers a compelling and richly melodic collection of tunes that stand as a prime example of rock elevated to a state of art. There are songs stunning in their gravity, such as the crunching “Mystic Child” about a manic depressive ready to unleash his anger in the streets and the hard-driving “Future Farmers of America” (a tune from “Time Walker,” another Wilson collaboration) about a futuristic scenario where black farmers enslave whites.
Equally alluring is the eerie “Rock Minuet,” performed in a loping triple meter. It opens a window on the sordid street scenes of hatred, violence and “the thrill of the needle and anonymous sex.” It features the musical contribution of Reed’s lover, performance artist Laurie Anderson. “We wanted a violin part on the tune and it was obvious who to ask,” says Lou, who notes they often perform duets in the privacy of their own home and have been floating the idea of working together on a project. “If you want unique, genius support, you have to call Laurie. She listened to the track and came up with an astonishing part that only she could come up with.”
The album opens with “Paranoia Key of E,” with its fear-obliterates-love theme and stormy bass-filigree guitar prelude. It’s drives with a straight-ahead rock beat and rhythmic horn ornamentation. Like most numbers on the disc, it has an indelible melody and a dark vision leavened by humor. “Catchy, yeah, that’s a great word and a nice place to start when describing the album,” says Lou who notes that he often finds himself humming one of the melodies.
“Funny things flying all over the place”
As for the levity, not the word usually associated with the grim nature of his tunes, Lou adds, “There are funny things flying around all over the place. I mean, I think they’re funny, but I don’t think everyone gets it. There’s a ton of humor.” He quotes a section from “Paranoia Key of E,” where an indecisive character cracks the joke: “My bedroom is a female zoo/Worse than Clinton in prime time.”
On the lovelorn title track delivered in a gently percussive calm teeming with sadness (Ecstasy is actually the name of the woman who got away), Lou compares the loss to an old Ford stripped of its engine, radio and hood and sitting in the street. In his distinctive spoken-word style, he sings with comic gloom, “In its seat sits a box with a note that says, ‘Goodbye Charlie, thanks a lot.’”
Lou also cites “Mad,” a slow tempo tune with a Memphis soul-like horn arrangement, as another amusing number even though it tells the tale of a guy who’s been caught cheating by his lover. Lines include “I know I shouldn’t’ve had someone in our bed, but I was so tired” and “you said you were out of town for the night and I believed in you, I believed you.” Lou laughs and says, “You know it really is funny. There are a lot of emotions working at the same time in these songs, not just one. So ‘Mad’ is a song about aarrggghh, but another part of it is hilarious.”
“That line should be an arrow”
A cursory survey of Lou’s book of lyrics to all of his songs ranging from his Velvet Underground days to the new album, reveals another frequent theme: dance. Case in point: Lou’s classic “Rock ’n’ Roll” where Jenny discovers at the age of five to tune into the airwaves and “dance to the rock ’n’ roll station.”
“Yeah, when I was putting the book together, I noticed some of those recurring themes too,” Lou says with a laugh. “Of course, I was young then. Now it’s ‘Modern Dance.’” He is referring to one of Ecstasy’s gems, a radiant midtempo rocker that’s a love song of sorts about how confusing the shifting roles of relationships are and how that oftentimes results in disappointment and the desire to escape. A particularly poignant line in the tune: “Maybe you don’t want to be a wife/It’s not a life being a wife.”
“That’s the whole point of the song,” Lou says. “It’s no accident that’s the very last thing you hear at the fade. But I don’t want to explain it. Actually, I could, but it would take a couple of hours sitting at a bar over drinks — and I don’t drink anymore. Besides, lyrics can mean so many different things and can be taken in so many different ways. But for certain people, that line should be an arrow.”
While humor is weaved through the album, there are no laughs in the gripping, part-anguish, part-rapture “Like a Possum.” After the raw beauty of the 18-minute tune, Lou inserts a gem-like musical pause: the quietly reflective instrumental “Rouge,” a one-minute palate cleanser featuring Laurie. That’s followed by the rousing finale, “Big Sky,” a surprising upbeat rocker that offers a glimpse of hope after an hour-plus journey through the underbelly of New York City.
“It is hopeful that the album ends there,” Lou says. “We didn’t want to end with ‘Possum,’ with the aarrggghh, so it was quite a trick. Then ‘Big Sky’ came along with its huge sound and its melodies — by God it’s amazing, it’s anthemic, it’s like a symphony. And I knew it was the end.”
On “Big Sky” Lou sings happily, “Big sky, holding up the sun/But it can’t hold us down anymore.” In the song, everything is big, whether it’s a huge storm wreaking havoc or an enormous snake offering original sin.
But there’s no holding Lou back. He’s bursting free from the shackles of the failed relationships he so keenly observes and so passionately sings about. You don’t expect this sentiment from an artist so identified with the dysfunctional. However, at heart this is Lou’s joy and ultimately his ecstasy.
In Part 3 of this four-part chapter, to be published on Medium next week, Lou delivers the Edgar Allen Poe-inspired The Raven that he admits could be “ a career ender” but hints that it could well be his masterpiece.